Category Archives: Plants

Goldenrod In Stages

Goldenrod is going through its paces this month. Here are a few of the stages you’ll see in a native of Pennsylvania, Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis).

Buds like these may be hard to find in September because …

Goldenrod buds (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

… Goldenrod is in full bloom.

Flower plume of Solidago canadensis (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Insects are busily fertilizing the flowers this month. By late September they’ll dry out and develop seeds.

Goldenrod in late September, after flowering (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In October the seeds are ready to blow on the wind.

Goldenrod gone to seed, October 2016 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Ahhh Chooo!

Common ragweed flower head (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Ragweed season officially began August 15 and runs through September. I’m not allergic to it, but those of you who are may want to know the enemy and learn how to avoid it.

First, a primer on what is NOT ragweed.

Goldenrod is not ragweed. Ragweed (Ambrosia sp. on left) is a wind-pollinated plant with green flowers on thin spikes. Goldenrod (Solidago sp. on right) is a bee-and-butterfly pollinated plant with yellow flowers in a feathery plume. Don’t worry about those yellow flowers. Goldenrod is not busy spreading pollen; it’s busy attracting bees.

Ragweed (on left) and goldenrod (on right), photos from Wikimedia Commons

Ragweed (Ambrosia genus) is a member of the Aster family native to the Americas but now spread to Europe. The most common species in Pennsylvania, common ragweed Ambrosia artemisiifolia, grows easily by the side of the road and in disturbed places. It doesn’t stand out.

Common ragweed’s female flowers are nearly hidden in the leaf axils and pollinated by the wind.

The male flowers are the ones to worry about. Perched on spikes, facing downward, and loaded with pollen, a slight tap is all it takes to release a cloud of pollen. Imagine what the wind can do!

Closeup of male ragweed flowers in the field (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

A single plant may produce about a billion grains of pollen per season, and the pollen is transported on the wind. It causes about half of all cases of pollen-associated allergic rhinitis in North America. … Ragweed pollen can remain airborne for days and travel great distances, affecting people hundreds of miles away. It can even be carried 300 to 400 miles (640 km) out to sea

Ragweed article, Wikipedia

It’s hard to avoid these pollen grains because they’re so pervasive, but you can be forewarned of a bad pollen day at On the other hand, your nose might know before the website does!

A grain of ragweed pollen (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Meanwhile, don’t walk past this plant unawares. Here’s what it looks like in a weedy patch.

Ragweed, growing like a weed (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Know your enemy.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

(*) Different species of goldenrod have different flower cluster shapes — it’s not always a plume. However tall goldenrod, pictured above, is the one most often called ragweed by mistake.

Fringetree Fruit

Fringetree fruit, 31 August 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

One advantage of botanizing the same place over and over again is that you get to know what grows where. You remember a plant that draws attention in the spring, forget it in the summer when it’s boring, then notice it again in fall. Because it’s in the same location, you know what it is.

The identity of this dangling blue fruit was a puzzle until I remembered that it’s hanging from the fringetree that put on a floral show in May.

One flower of a fringetree in Schenley Park, 18 May 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
One flower of a fringetree in Schenley Park, 18 May 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

Each flower can become a blue fruit.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Mountain Deathcamas

Mountain deathcamas, Cedar Bog, Ohio (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Any flower with the word “death” in its name is probably poisonous and deceptively beautiful. This one fits the bill.

Mountain deathcamas or alkali grass (Anticlea elegans) is a threatened native plant found in limy sandy soil, in fens, wet meadows, beaches, on hillsides and canyons in the Great Lakes area and western North America. A member of the trillium family (Melanthiaceae) it blooms in June through August so today, August 31, is probably too late to see it.

Dianne and Bob Machesney visited Cedar Bog, Ohio in July to catch up with the plant in bloom. (Dianne’s photo above.) Here’s another look at it from Wikimedia Commons, photographed at Manitoulin Island, Ontario, Canada.

Mountain deathcamas, Cedar Bog (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Enjoy the plant’s beauty but never eat it! The entire plant contains a deadly alkaloid. Ingestion causes coma and death. Yikes! It earned its name.

(photo at top by Dianne Machesney. Second photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)


Dodder at Jennings Prairie, 4 August 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

This yellow vine — called dodder (Cuscuta sp.) — wraps itself around other plants, inserts its “teeth” into a host, and sucks out water and nutrients. Yes, dodder is a parasite but it doesn’t kill its host. It might even be performing a service.

Learn how dodder finds a host, benefits from fungi, and may help the hosts protect themselves in this 13 minute video by Adam Haritan at Learn Your Land.

(photo by Kate St. John, video by Adam Haritan at Learn Your Land)

What Do These Have In Common?

Easy Wave Red petunia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

What do red petunias and lemons have in common?

Lemons (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

They share a cell mechanism that regulates acid.

Ronald Koes at Univ. of Amsterdam discovered that red petunias have a vacuole proton pump that concentrates acid in their flower cells. Without the acid, those petunias would be blue.

He then examined DNA in a variety of citrus fruits, from sweet to very sour, and found that the sour ones have the same cell mechanism.

This discovery gives fruit and flower breeders a DNA marker for achieving desired colors and flavors.

Are red petunia flowers sour? … I’m not going to taste them to find out.

Read more about this discovery in Science Magazine.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Aggravating: Virginia Stickseed

Virginia stickseed (photo by Kate St. John)

In a few weeks this plant will be very aggravating. Those tiny green balls are solidly attached to the stems right now but soon they’ll dry out and grab onto your clothes and your dog if you brush past the plant. They’re the fruits of Virginia stickseed (Hackelia virginiana).

Virginia stickseed is so inconspicuous in bloom that we barely notice it at this stage.

Virginia stickseed in bloom (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The flowers are tiny …

Virginia stickseed flower (photo by Kate St. John)

When fertilized they become small burs made of four nutlets facing each other. The outer surface is like velcro.

Fruits of Virginia stickseed, early August 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

To give you an idea of their size, I pulled some fruits off the stem. It was hard to detach them because they haven’t dried out yet in early August.

Just wait until they turn brown!

p.s. There’s another less common native plant called small flowered agrimony with a similar fruit. Read more about it in this vintage blog: Slightly Aggravating.

(flowering plant photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original. All other photos by Kate St. John)

Cinnamon Repels Ants

Cinnamon sticks, powder and flowers (photo of Ceylon cinnamon from Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps you already know this but it was news to me: Cinnamon repels ants.

Cinnamon comes from the dried inner bark of a tropical evergreen, the cinnamon tree (Cinnamomum sp.). Ants would eat these trees alive if they could but the cinnamon genus evolved a very effective defense: two chemicals, Cinnamaldehyde and Cinnamyl alcohol, that are toxic to ants. Ants stay away from cinnamon.

In this 9-minute video, the guy from You Can Science It shows that even swarming, warring ants will drop what they’re doing when confronted with cinnamon. He theorizes that it changes their messaging from “Kill the other colony” to “Oh no! It’s cinnamon!” (video begins where he starts discussing cinnamon. Click here for the full video.)

Yes, cinnamon repels ants but it has to be fresh and you have to use a lot of it.

Read more about this experiment and the research behind it in this 2015 blog post at You Can Science It.

(photo and illustration from Wikimedia Commons, video from You Can Science It on YouTube)